Cal football set to kick off season with new cast of characters in place

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Faces always change in college football and teams have to start over. For Cal, 2016 appears to be that time. Coming off its best season since 2009, the Bears have an almost completely different look with most of their leaders from last year gone.

With new players on both offense and defense, 2016 figures to be a transition year for head coach Sonny Dykes, who is coaching his first year without Jared Goff and many others.

Dykes has improved his record every season. However, getting past eight wins and continuing his upward trend isn’t going to be easy without his usual playmakers.

“Everyone can find a role for themselves on this football team,” Dykes said.

The Bears’ offense has proven capable of scoring points. But, one effect of that fast tempo has been an unequal time of possession, where the Cal defense is often on the field for long periods of time with little rest.

Last year was a turning point for the defense. Safeties Stefan McClure and Damariay Drew were both consistent tacklers. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson led the team in tackles. And Kyle Kragen had eight sacks.

But most of those big names have turned pro, transferred or can’t play due to injury.

The rotation at safety will be a mix of redshirt senior Khari Vanderbilt, redshirt junior Jacob Anderson, sophomore Evan Rambo and junior Luke Rubenzer. Of the four, Rubenzer has seen the most action on the field with 43 tackles and two interceptions from 2015.

“We got big shoes to fill,” Vanderbilt said. “There’s some people we got to prove wrong so we’re looking forward to it.”

The cornerbacks have more experience. Set to lead the cornerbacks is captain Darius Allensworth, who will be working alongside senior Cameron Walker, sophomore Trey Turner and junior Marloshawn Franklin Jr.

Returning players in the front seven with experience are Devante Downs, Raymond Davison and James Looney. With the backs Cal is expected to match up against, the front seven may have issues if it can’t finish tackles against the run.

The offensive line hopes to protect Davis Webb and improve from Goff’s 26 sacks last season. Returning faces include senior Dominic Granado, senior Chris Borrayo and redshirt junior Aaron Cochran.

This year, Cal offensive line coach Brandon Jones expects to rotate often and play as many as eight players.

“I think it’s important that you keep guys fresh,” Jones said. “I feel good if there’s not going to be a significant drop-off.”

The Bears hope using multiple offensive linemen can give Webb the opportunity to quickly adapt to a new offense. While it’s unlikely Webb can throw 43 touchdowns like Goff, Webb is projected to be a top quarterback. And with Cal’s pass friendly offense, Webb has the chance to prove there won’t be a drop off in quarterback talent.

Webb’s job can be a lot easier if the young talent on offense can quickly contribute. The two names with high potential are freshmen Melquise Stovall and Demetris Robertson. Stovall was a four-star prospect and Robertson was the highest rated receiver to come out of high school. Unlike Goff, Webb won’t be able to throw to receivers like Kenny Lawler and Bryce Treggs. However, if Stovall and Robertson can develop quickly, the offense can still produce at a similar rate.

“Those young guys, I’ve already told them, they don’t have the luxury to be freshmen,” said inside receivers coach Jacob Peeler. “They just got to come out and be football players.”

The lead receiver is redshirt junior Chad Hansen, who caught one touchdown with 249 yards last year. As the number one target, Hansen, at 6’2”, hopes to enjoy a breakout season and earn NFL recognition.

The running backs will still look around the same. Daniel Lasco’s no longer there, but senior Khalfani Muhammad and juniors Tre Watson and Vic Enwere played the majority of last season without Lasco and performed well. If the offensive line can hold up, there’s no reason there can’t be an improvement on the ground.

With so many faces gone, there’s a lot to be worried about. But there’s also a lot to be excited about. While many project Cal to regress, there are lots of bright spots on the team. Much of how 2016 goes will come down to how quickly the new players can adapt.

“We’re going to play a lot of close ball games this year,” Dykes said. “The last minute of the game’s going to decide a lot of ball games for us.”

Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact Ritchie Lee at [email protected].